Commendably for it, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has taken the lead in deciding to protect and promote senior citizens rights whilst a senior citizens bill has been sitting in the national Parliament for over five years. That bill may have become redundant following the transfer of health and social welfare to the provinces.
Speaking the other day at a seminar organised by Help Age International, provincial Minister for Social Welfare Sitara Ayaz disclosed that a bill to secure the rights of senior citizens would soon be presented before the provincial assembly for approval, and that the government intended to work with other stakeholders for the proposed law's effective implementation. The move should serve as an example for the other provinces. They too must undertake necessary legislation followed by action.
The need for such laws backed by practical measures cannot be over-emphasised in the changing Pakistani society. The average lifespan is increasing. At present, elderly people comprise 6.6 percent of the population, which is expected to rise to 15.6 percent by 2050. Although the old concept of respect for age is still alive, economic pressures are altering social relations and attitudes too, especially among disadvantaged sections of society. Worst affected are people who worked hard all through their lives in the informal sector as labourers, house servants, cleaners or as self-employed washermen and gardeners, etc. They have no pensions or a social security net to fall back on to meet their basic needs. When no longer able to work, they have to depend on their children who, like a report about the inmates of KP's first centre for the elderly in Peshawar shows, are rendered homeless and destitute. The children are unable or unwilling to take care of them.
The KP government has been doing some good work towards providing shelter to the homeless senior citizens (other provinces already have several such facilities). Aside from the centre functioning in Peshawar, it plans to establish other centres in Kohistan, Shangla and Battagram, and later extend the facility to Torghar and Tank districts. Details of the proposed law are not known yet. But it must cover the basic issues confronting senior citizens - the two most important ones being related to health and economic survival. They ought to have easy access to healthcare and a measure of financial self-reliance through social security payments along the lines of Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). Financial constraints should not act as a hindrance as long as the will is there. If money can be spared for BISP, it surely can come for the old and vulnerable citizens.